Scientists are growing increasingly alarmed at a new COVID-19 variant originating in Southern Africa, which on Thursday forced the UK and Israel to effectively stop travel from the region but passengers are continuing to arrive in the US.
The variant is believed to have emerged in Botswana – from where there are no direct flights to the U.S. – and also being found in neighboring South Africa.
A third country, China, has reported a case after a passenger in Hong Kong who had recently traveled from South Africa was found to be infected with the variant.
The variant – which could be named ‘Nu’ by the World Health Organization in the coming days – has caused an ‘exponential’ rise in infections in South Africa and has already spread to Hong Kong and Botswana, where it is believed to have emerged.
‘There’s a lot we don’t understand about this variant,’ said Richard Lessells, an infectious disease physician at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa, at a press briefing organized by South Africa’s health department on Thursday.
‘The mutation profile gives us concern, but now we need to do the work to understand the significance of this variant and what it means for the response to the pandemic.’
On Thursday Britain’s health secretary, Sajid Javid sounded the alarm over what he termed the ‘worst-ever’ super-mutant COVID variant.
A baby cries as her mother receives her Pfizer vaccine against COVID-19, in Diepsloot Township near Johannesburg, South Africa on October 21
He said it could make vaccines at least 40 per cent less effective, and as a result he said they had banned flights from South Africa and five other regional countries.
Experts explained earlier how the B.1.1.529 variant has more than 30 mutations – the most ever recorded in a variant and twice as many as Delta – that suggest it could be more jab-resistant and transmissible than any version before it.
In response, Javid announced that flights from South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe will be suspended from midday Friday and all six countries will be added to the red list.
No cases have been detected in the UK so far but everyone who has returned from South Africa in the past 10 days will be contacted and asked to take a test.
United Airlines currently fly direct from Johannesburg to New York City seven days a week, with the 16-hour flight leaving at 10pm and arriving at 7am in Newark.
United also fly direct to New York City from Cape Town three times a week, on Monday, Thursday and Saturday.
United flies Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners, which can hold 290 people.
Delta fly direct from Johannesburg to Atlanta on Saturday, Monday, and Thursday.
They use Airbus A350-900, which can seat between 300 and 350 people.
South African scientists, meanwhile, add that they are ‘concerned by the jump in evolution in this variant’.
Only 59 confirmed cases have been identified in South Africa, Hong Kong and Botswana.
The variant has over 30 mutations – around twice as many as the Delta variant – which could potentially make it more transmissible and evade the protection given by prior infection or vaccination.
The British expert whose modeling helped instigate the first coronavirus lockdown said that the decision to impose travel restrictions was ‘prudent’.
Professor Neil Ferguson, a member of the British government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said: ‘The B.1.1.529 variant has an unprecedented number of mutations in the spike protein gene, the protein which is the target of most vaccines.
‘There is therefore a concern that this variant may have a greater potential to escape prior immunity than previous variants.
‘It is also concerning that this variant appears to be driving a rapid increase in case numbers in South Africa. The Government’s move to restrict travel with South Africa is therefore prudent.
‘However, we do not yet have reliable estimates of the extent to which B.1.1.529 might be either more transmissible or more resistant to vaccines, so it is too early to be able to provide an evidence-based assessment of the risk it poses.’
The above slide shows the proportion of tests that picked up a SGTF mutation, a hallmark of the B.1.1.529. It suggests that the Covid variant may be spreading rapidly in the country. The slide was presented at a briefing today run by the South African Government
This chart shows the proportion of cases that were the B.1.1.529 variant (blue) and Indian ‘Delta’ variant (red) over time in South Africa. It suggests that the mutant strain could outcompete Delta in the province within weeks
Experts from the UKHSA have been advising ministers on the issue, with a number of scientists expressing serious concern over the variant due to the significant number of mutations in the spike protein.
One senior scientist said: ‘One of our major worries is this virus spike protein is so dramatically different to the virus spike that was in the original Wuhan strain, and therefore in our vaccines, that it has a great cause of concern.’
Experts from the World Health Organization (WHO) are meeting with South African officials on Friday to assess the evolving situation in the country.
The variant could eventually be given the moniker ‘Nu’ – with the most concerning variants given named after the Greek alphabet.
The variant is already in three countries, suggesting it is more widespread than the official tally.
Two cases have been detected in Hong Kong – both of whom had links to South Africa – three have been picked up in Botswana and the remainder are in South Africa.
But a lack of surveillance on continental Africa may be underestimating the true numbers there, scientists warned.
Dr Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist and senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists, said initial data from the variant was worrying.
He said border restrictions should be imposed.
‘Looks like vaccine evasion could be real with this variant,’ he tweeted, pointing out that the two patients in Hong Kong who had the variant were both doubled-jabbed with the Pfizer vaccine.
‘It’s very airborne. The hotel guests were in different room across the hallway from each other. Environmental samples found the virus in 25 of 87 swab across both rooms.’
Feigel-Ding added: ‘I think border and travel restrictions make sense. Especially since Hong Kong only caught the case because of a mandatory hotel quarantine. Which countries in the west still have that??? Almost none.’